In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Art at Work Month, our 10 in 10 series is spotlighting a decade’s worth of fabulous things about Tacoma.
The Woolworth Building. It’s an anchor of Tacoma’s downtown, a box-shaped receptacle of local lore, and a bastion of nostalgia for those who shopped at the famous five-and-dime or filled up at its homey lunch counter before it closed to the public in January 1994. It’s one of Tacoma’s best-loved buildings, with a varied past. Today, Woolworth’s broad storefront windows provide a unique, open-air exhibition space for art, and no longer advertise the inexpensive household goods that attracted windowshoppers from 1950 on.
The building at 955 Broadway is a landmark of local history and architecture. In the 1800s, it was the location of the First Presbyterian Church (and of a freshwater spring that sometimes leaked inside. Trickles persist to this day.). The church’s minister condemned the racism aimed against Chinese railroad workers at the time, but to no avail; they were driven out of town in the 1880s.
In 1890, the church was replaced by a new altar dedicated to the world of finance: the Fidelity Building, designed by the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, of Burnham & Root. (Another of the firm’s structures, the Luzon Building on Pacific Ave., was demolished last year against the protests of citizens and preservationists.) Exactly six decades later, the Fidelity Building was razed to make room for Woolworth’s: such was the success of the New York-based retail chain that it could afford to tear down a handsomely embellished 12-story skyscraper and replace it with a four-story, post-Deco structure whose style was dictated by its brand image. The superstore of the future opened during United Tacoma Days, on Nov. 2, 1950.
The five-and-dime was located across from the sprawling Crystal Sanitary Market where fresh produce filled the stalls; and from the classy Rhodes department store. Other neighbors included small specialty shops, dressmakers and haberdashers. Tacoma’s theater district, one block away, came alive at night; by six o’clock the independent businesses would close, but the behemoth retailer would stay open later, selling candy to moviegoers. Woolworth’s quickly became an important fixture for those who lived downtown, a place where one could find anything – housewares, shoes, cheap jewelry, Simplicity dress patterns and fabric, toys, even pets – and still have enough left for a grilled cheese sandwich and a ‘shake at the 62-seat lunch counter.
“It was a very urban thing,” says historian and architectural consultant, Michael Sullivan. He notes that the national chain store was among the first designed to keep shoppers focused on the breadth of products lining the aisles through the use of focused lighting, and by minimizing the number of windows.
In February 1960, at the lunch counter of the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, four African American college students initiated a sit-in, thus, giving birth to an iconic chapter of the civil rights movement. Since the 1930s, the official company policy had been to serve all Americans, regardless of race; but it was never enforced in the Jim Crow South where individual store managers set the rules. The students’ action sparked a series of nonviolent, sit-in protests and boycotts across the South. Five months later, on July 26, 1960, all Woolworth stores were desegregated. The Greensboro, NC, Woolworth’s is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and a section of its lunch counter has pride of place in the Smithsonian Institution.
According to Sullivan’s research, the Tacoma store never experienced the kind of racial tension (it wasn’t segregated) that afflicted those in the South. Known as the purveyor of a wide but modestly priced array of merchandise (as well as the 62-cent turkey dinner), “It was always viewed as a populist place,” one that reflected “the diversity of the city.
“It seemed the most public and most egalitarian of places,” he says. Everyone, it seemed, shopped at Woolworth’s.
The store’s decline began in the 1960s with the arrival of I-5; its eventual demise was sealed with the inauguration of the Tacoma Mall. But the store continued to have a faithful downtown following for another 25 years, including single folks, pensioners, and people on fixed incomes who enjoyed the ritual of coffee at the lunch counter. Sullivan recalls, “You could get a wholesome meal at a fair price. There was a uniformed waitress there with a pencil in her bun, saying, ‘What can I get you, honey?'”
The F.W. Woolworth Building closed its doors in January 1994; today it houses a telephone switching station. Since 2004, the building’s post-Deco outer casing has showcased rotating art exhibitions inside capacious wraparound windows – it’s one of the city’s most unique and dynamic attractions. Sullivan says it’s easy to understand why Tacomans still love this iconic, 61-year-old structure. “It has a sense of place, and a familiarity; [it represents] a social investment as part of the streetscape, for generations.”
The Woolworth Building came into its own as an art venue in 2004, with an ambitious exhibition, Scattered Ephemera, that we’ll be covering in a future post. Today, Woolworth’s is the flagship exhibition space of Spaceworks Tacoma, a project connecting artists with vacant retail storefront space.
Past 10 in 10 topics include:
10 in 10: UW-Tacoma and SOTA